‘On life support:’ Research shows common pesticides starve, disorient birds

Research says two of Canada’s most commonly used pesticides cause migrating songbirds to lose weight

A white crested sparrow is seen in this undated handout photo. Research suggests that two of Canada’s most commonly used pesticides cause migrating songbirds to lose both weight and their sense of direction. (HO/The Canadian Press, University of Saskatchewan)

Newly published research says two of Canada’s most commonly used pesticides cause migrating songbirds to lose weight and their sense of direction.

“This is very good evidence that even a little dose — incidental, you might call it — in their feeding could be enough to have serious impacts,” said University of Saskatchewan biologist Christy Morrissey, whose paper was published Thursday in the journal Scientific Reports.

Morrissey studied the effect of two widely used pesticide types — neonicotinoids and organophosphates. Both are used on more than 100 different crops, including wheat and canola, and are found in dozens of commercial products.

The so-called neonics are often applied to seeds before they’re planted in the ground. Organophosphates are applied in tiny granules.

Both are known to be lethal to birds in large doses, but Morrissey wanted to study the impact of smaller amounts.

She and her colleagues took three groups of white-crowned sparrows, a common migratory songbird found throughout North America, and exposed them to a small dose, a somewhat larger dose, or no dose at all.

All doses were kept deliberately small. The low neonic dose was the equivalent of four treated canola seeds per day for three days — about one per cent of the bird’s diet.

The results were dramatic.

After three days, the low-dose birds lost 17 per cent of their weight. The high-dose birds lost 25 per cent.

“That’s a lot,” said Morrissey. “At that point, those birds were on life support.”

The birds exposed to organophosphates kept their weight, but they lost something else — their ability to find north. Both the high-dose and low-dose group lost all orientation and didn’t get it back after the tests ended.

The neonics also disoriented the sparrows, but the effect faded when the exposure stopped.

A 2016 survey suggested that migratory songbird populations have fallen by 1.5 billion since 1970. Morrissey suggests that pesticides might be one reason why.

“In the real world, any bird that experiences these effects is pretty much a dead bird,” she said.

Morrissey points out that pesticides are often applied just as birds are increasing their food intake to get ready to migrate.

Pierre Petelle, head of the agricultural chemical industry association CropLife Canada, said the paper is being considered.

“We’ll be looking closely at the study, including how realistic the exposure scenarios were, among other elements,” he said.

“Like any new study on pesticides, this one will be thoroughly reviewed by both industry and regulators and it will need to be looked at in the context of other extensive studies.”

Neonics have already been blamed for steep drops in bee populations.

Health Canada is considering a ban on the neonic used in Morrissey’s study. The European Union strictly regulates its use.

Morrissey said her study has been made available to Health Canada.

There may be ways to keep the popular pesticide on the market and reduce its environmental impact, she suggested. Instead of being applied universally to seeds, it may be wiser to use neonics only when they’re needed.

“That’s where we have to consider how we’re doing agriculture, whether we should be applying very toxic pesticides when they may or may not need to be used.”

The Canadian Press

Like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

Abbotsford parents upset as district gets cohort exemption to maximize class sizes at elementary school

Classes and cohorts shuffled after division eliminated at King Traditional elementary school

Young Abbotsford cancer survivor rides 105-km with Terry Fox’s brother

Jacob Bredenhof and Darrell Fox’s cycling trek raises almost $90,000 for cancer research

B.C. families financially affected by pandemic eligible for grocery gift cards

Program open to struggling families in Lower Mainland and Fraser Valley communities

‘Each step is a prayer’: Ojibwe man will walk from Hope to Vancouver Island for Indigenous healing, reconciliation

James Taylor departs Sept. 20, returns to Saanich in five days for sacred fire

COLUMN: We don’t need an election. But it’s 2020, so we’ll probably get one anyways.

There are only selfish reasons for the NDP to trigger an election this fall

B.C. or Ontario? Residential school survivors fight move of court battle

It’s now up to Ontario’s Court of Appeal to sort out the venue question

B.C. transportation minister will not seek re-election

Claire Trevena has held the position since 2017

VIDEO: Shots fired outside Langley gas station that was scene of 2018 homicide

No reports of injuries in Saturday evening incident

B.C. migrant, undocumented workers rally for permanent residency program

Rally is part of the Amnesty for Undocumented Workers Campaign led by the Migrant Workers Centre

Preparations underway for pandemic election in Saskatchewan and maybe B.C.

Administrators in B.C. and around the country are also looking to expand voting by mail during the pandemic

Nearly 20 per cent of COVID-19 infections among health-care workers by late July

WHO acknowledged the possibility that COVID-19 might be spread in the air under certain conditions

Ferry riders say lower fares are what’s most needed to improve service

Provincial government announces findings of public engagement process

Air quality advisory ends for the Lower Mainland

It had been in effect since Sept. 8

Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg dies at 87

The court’s second female justice, died Friday at her home in Washington

Most Read